Seeking stable cross-strait ties

Even as a major defence review unveiled by Taiwan last week called for a military build-up to counter China's growing military threat, some analysts say a better way is to stabilise cross-strait ties. For Taiwan does not have resources to enter an arms race with China, which has never renounced the use of force to take back what it maintains is a wayward province.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, refuses to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus - the basis for stable and peaceful ties between the two sides. This has led to frosty relations with China, which cut official communications with the island.

Beijing is stepping up military drills in the waters around Taiwan. Its aircraft carrier passed through the waters in January. Beijing has also announced a 7 per cent rise in defence spending for this year, with the estimated 1.44 trillion yuan (S$292 billion) budget about 14 times larger than Taiwan's defence budget.

Taiwan's 200,000 troops are a fraction of China's 2.3 million-strong army, and defence planners have committed to scrapping conscription by next year, even as they struggle to recruit career soldiers.

Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan has said he hopes to increase defence spending from 2 per cent to 3 per cent of gross domestic product to pay better salaries, buy weapons and fund a plan to build Taiwan's own warplanes and submarines.

But few countries, if any, are willing to sell Taiwan weapons for fear of angering Beijing. Even the US, Taiwan's sole arms supplier, has been hesitant to rile Beijing. Then US President Barack Obama put a US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) arms package for Taiwan on hold last December, leaving it to Mr Donald Trump. And US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's conciliatory remarks when he met Chinese leaders last weekend have cast doubts on whether the deal will proceed.

Said Tamkang University's strategic studies expert Alexander Huang: "So long as Taiwan does not do anything to improve its relationship with China, there is a limit to what other countries can do."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Seeking stable cross-strait ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe